Cafe Altro Paradiso is Chef Ignacio Mattos and wine guy Thomas Carter's follow-up to their wildly successful Estela. Before becoming a star at Estela, Chef Mattos cooked at the ill-fated New ______ restaurant Isa in Brooklyn. He said that at this new place, he wanted to cook straight-out Italian.
The world missing from that last sentence is "again". Because the place Chef Mattos first attracted attention in New York, before he opened at Isa, was Il Buco. Quality went way up at Il Buco when he started there -- and dropped when he left. So although Chef Mattos is South American by birth, he first made his mark as an Italian chef.
Estela being the huge hit it is, Cafe Altro Paradiso is getting a lot of attention from the local food media. We went opening night. Whatever slight service glitches there may have been by the very friendly and attentive staff (again, they recognized us from previous places of employment), the FOH and kitchen seem to have their act together.
The menu can use some expansion, though. In the future, they will have nightly special segundi (a different set special for each night). But as of now, they're limited to three, none of which is powerfully compelling. The one I had -- swordfish -- was very good (although subject to one flaw I'll get to later).
The cooking here has integrity, and is accomplished. The problem I have is that Chef Mattos has his likes: similar flavor accents pop up throughout the menu, giving everything a certain saminess and leading to slight palate fatigue. One of these, oddly, is anchovies. Another, less oddly, is sour/vinegar. A few dishes in a row with that accent, and you just want something different.
Having said that, almost all the dishes, taken by themselves, were winners. Among them: a chicory salad with a dressing tasting very heavily of anchovies and garlic. Here, on these greens, the anchovies were welcome! Anchovy crostini, the anchovies, heavily spiced with chili, served on (I think) amazingly creamy butter. Busiate -- an interesting and hearty curly dark wheat pasta -- with broccoli, anchovies, and ricotta salata (getting the idea?). Grilled swordfish with artichoke, raisin, and olive (here's where they sour fatigue set in).
The only miss were ravioli filled with flavorless ricotta and cabbage, with flavorless soggy black truffles on top.
I can't imagine this restaurant -- beautifully situated on Soho Square -- can fail, and I give it a strong recommendation and look forward to going again (maybe when they institute the daily specials).
But here's the thing. This place is better than Batali/Bastianich's new La Sirena in every way: it's smaller, it's less slick, the food is more creative and "interesting", it has more integrity. In every way BUT ONE: La Sirena's food tastes better. Is that still important, I wonder?
NOTE TO LIQUID: They only give you bread if you ask for it (but at no charge).
COMP DISCLOSURE: They gave us one of the pastas for free after they threw the remains out even though my dining companion asked to take them home.